Childhood summertime in the mountains meant tying an emerald june bug to a string and letting it fly around your head, catching lightning bugs at dark and putting them in a jar to light your dreams, or piling in the Studebaker and going to the closest custard stand for a chili bun or slaw dog. Everything except the Studebaker is still a part of summer in the mountain South—especially the custard stand, which is often what a drive-in restaurant is called, even if it doesn’t serve custard.
There’s the Dip Dog in Marion, Virginia; the Frosty-Ette in Sandgap, Kentucky; Skeenies Hot Dogs near Charleston, West Virginia. Pal’s Sudden Service all around the Tennessee-Virginia border; King Tut Drive-In in Beckley, West Virginia; Frosty Bossie in Coeburn, Virginia. These are just a handful of places my friends and I have frequented. All such serve ice cream treats, some make a mean burger, and the Sterling Drive-In in Welch, West Virginia, makes a deep-fried sub with chicken salad, cranberry sauce, and bacon as its filling. Really. But the aficionados know that what you really come for begins with chili on a hot dog bun.
The first thing to understand is that neither the chili bun nor the slaw dog, a.k.a. West Virginia Hot Dog, are quite the same thing as what the rest of the world calls a chili dog. A chili bun is just that: Chili. On a bun. It has no dog. A slaw dog does, along with the chili, but it also has…that’s right, slaw.
Here are the rules: Buns should be soft, not toasted. Either can be dressed with bright yellow ballpark mustard and chopped white onion, but ketchup, pickles, and/or kraut are largely frowned upon. Hot sauce—favored brands are Crystal, Tabasco, and Texas Pete—may be liberally applied by those who wish for more heat. Jalapeños? Well, now you’re talking schisms.